While the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle of 1907 is widely thought to be the most beautiful coin in American numismatic history, the Indian Head Half Eagle $5 gold piece that debuted the following year may be the most daring. The quality that sets these coins apart from all others stylistically is their unprecedented incuse relief: unlike any other modern design, the images and inscriptions on the Indian Head Half Eagle are sunken into the surface of the coin.
The revolutionary idea for minting an American coin with incuse relief bears the mark of two men: the young and dynamic President Roosevelt, eager to leave a mark on the country, and his good friend, physician and art lover William Sturgis Bigelow. Bigelow approached the president with the idea for a coin with recessed features after seeing an exhibition of ancient Egyptian coins with a similar design at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Roosevelt was soon taken with the desire to apply the idea to an American coin. With the president’s blessing, Bigelow moved forward with the project, challenging Boston artist Bela-Lyon Pratt with the commission. Pratt sculpted an obverse depicting a Native American in full headdress surrounded by thirteen stars with an American eagle standing atop fasces and an olive branch – symbols of military preparedness and peace, respectively – on the reverse, and the Indian Head Half Eagle was born.
Indian Head Half Eagles were minted from 1908 through 1929 in Philadelphia (no mintmark), San Francisco (“S” mintmark), New Orleans (“O”), and Denver (“D”), are composed of .90% gold yielding .24187 troy ounces of pure gold per coin, and measure 21.6mm in diameter.
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